Earlier in your career, there will be times at work when you feel you are in the shadow of your manager. For me, it was most salient when I worked on a project sponsored by a senior leader. Although I was doing the work, my manager often became the face of the project.
I don’t think this shift was intentional; managers often have more established relationships with senior leaders. I’d often see updates made on projects that were discussed during a managers’ meeting. And although I would hear updates after meetings, I didn’t want feedback filtered through my manager.
One day, I finally did something about it. I sent an email directly to the senior leader with whom my manager was meeting. And I asked if I could schedule a meeting with them. The response was favorable. I was able to secure an appointment within one week of sending the message.
The night before the meeting, I sleep abysmally. I nodded off and on, contemplating what I could say about my project that my manager hadn’t already shared. I had learned, when you’ve been in your manager’s shadow, it can chip away at your confidence. I experienced imposter syndrome, and I began to doubt that my project was worth discussing.
I was uncharacteristically quiet at work the following day. By midmorning, I was ready with all meeting materials, including the project charter, timeline, milestones, as well as an overview of the anticipated deliverables.
Fortunately, although I began the meeting uncertain, I left filled with confidence and excitement because the senior leader shared positive feedback on my project, and they gave me suggestions for other deliverables that would be helpful for the organization. They also asked me to stay in touch with them and reach out if I ever need help.
The experience revealed a handful of key workplace lessons for me. Here is my advice for early-career professionals who find themselves in a similar situation.
- Have an honest conversation. Talk to your manager and tell them you’re seeking exposure within the organization. Let them know the more people you interact with, especially senior leaders, the more feedback you’ll receive to make improvements.
- Build internal relationships. Projects are a great way to build relationships with senior leaders over time. You can share project updates via email or during meetings. You can also reach out to other peers. For example, a 2015 Harvard Business Review article recommended the following series of actions:
A good litmus test for determining whether you are in your boss’s shadows is to ask yourself: Can I name three people outside my department who understand what I do and what I’m good at?
- Demonstrate your expertise. As you start building relationships internally, subtly share your skills and expertise. I find listening more than talking helps you figure out what people are working on and how you can help.
- Seek out a mentor. Often, it’s helpful to speak with a mentor that knows and understands the organization’s culture. They can help you figure out how to connect with senior leaders aligned with your project, while not stepping on your manager’s toes. To be frank, I didn’t have a mentor at the beginning of my career. Looking back on my career, having a mentor early on would have helped me figure out things at work above and beyond doing my job.
- Change jobs. Sometimes getting out of your manager’s shadow comes to changing jobs. However, this shouldn’t be your very first stepFor example, early in my career I worked for someone who discouraged me from talking to others at work—especially senior leaders. They’d often say things like, “I’ll take care of that,” when I asked if I could provide project updates. This routine lasted for awhile before I decided to to leave. While I didn’t make the decision immediately, I ultimately left the role. I didn’t want to be in a position where I had to sneak around my manager. Further, they couldn’t see the negative impact their actions had on me. It was a lose-lose situation.
From my experiences, I know that being in your manager’s shadow can lead to a dip in motivation and your belief in yourself. However, you can change the situation by taking certain steps. In the meantime, continue contributing at work consistently, and people will soon realize your value.
Kyra Leigh Sutton, PhD, is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her research interests include the development and retention of early-career employees.